Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Adventures in body chemistry

It’s a curious question to ask how much of your sense of self pertains simply to hormones and body chemistry. I had my first serious run-in with this issue in my twenties, when I learned how much my attraction to a specific person had been based on how they smelled, and when that changed, the attraction vanished. It was a disorientating experience.

As I waft about in the weirdness that is the menopause, my hormones are doing all sorts of exciting things. I get surges at night, that feel like being hit by some sort of massive wave of emotions that are just body chemistry and not otherwise caused by anything. These can leave me weeping, or overwhelmed with anxiety. Again it’s disorientating because it doesn’t relate to anything else that is happening.

I’m fairly confident at this point that I used to produce a lot more testosterone than I do now. I was a tougher, pushier, more enthusiastic, more driven sort of person when younger. I miss my fighting spirit. I miss my ambition and determination, but it just isn’t there at the moment, and the trade-off seems to be less leg hair, and I’m not entirely persuaded it’s a good trade!

I know all sorts of things influence my mood. Blood sugar levels can be highly influential. Temperature has a big impact on me. 

What I experience as ‘me’ is the chemistry in my body. It’s informed by what I do and what I eat, and by the process of aging and the strange tides of fertility. I am a cluster of haunted molecules, and the molecules are at least as influential as whatever’s doing the haunting. It’s making me look hard at who I think I am, and what I think defines me. For all of the chemical chaos, I am still able to make a lot of choices and I still think that who I choose to be is the most authentic part of who I am. The chemical adventures are intrinsic to being me right now, but its what I do around that which will define me most to myself.


How to cope

Balancing health – mental and physical, with work demands and rest isn’t ever easy if you’ve got any challenges going on. Sometimes there are no right answers. Resting can help, because exhaustion makes everything worse, but too much rest and your body will suffer from the lack of movement. Anxiety and depression can be eased with rest, but they can also be eased by feeling like you’ve achieved something.

There’s no definitive answer here, and what works for one person on one day might not work for that person on another day.

I find that ‘doing’ often helps in the short term. What self esteem I have depends on getting things done, making things and feeling useful. If I don’t feel useful, it’s not long before this deepens the depression and/or increases the anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be a high set bar. Getting one useful thing done in a day is enough, I have decided, and I hold myself to that.

Trying to rest doesn’t actually work if you’re fretting about something you think needs doing. If that thing is important – as well it might be – not having the energy is a massive problem. The longer it takes to be able to solve an issue, the more terrifying and anxiety-creating it can become. This often isn’t irrational and can trap people in vicious cycles of fear, illness, inability to act and increasing problems that feed the stress. Too often the assumption is that anxiety is a brain problem, but more usually it’s about how we’re interacting with the world. Fear can be a very rational response to out of control problems.

So you may end up self medicating to get through. Sugar and other stimulants can be used to push through exhaustion. Alcohol and other substances can be used to force rest. More and less legal options exist. Formal and informal medications exist. Sometimes, buying time in the short term to solve the big problems is worth it. Sometimes the big problems don’t go away, and every day is like running through a burning building and then you end up doing it while also dealing with addiction, or self-care strategies that have become problems in themselves. 

It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and see the mess and dysfunction and blame them for getting into that much trouble. Without seeing the process, you can’t see what was once a viable strategy that has now become part of the problem. So often, it’s the things we do to survive what we thought was a short term crisis that trip us up for the longer term. It is so easily done. Bad choices often don’t start out as bad choices, sometimes they were the best choices we could make at the time, but they too have consequences.


How do you make me feel?

Recently I’ve been exploring my own use of the word ‘make’ and how that small word influences my relationships. How do I make you feel? How am I made to feel? Where are the edges around personal responsibility?

Manipulative and controlling people will try and make you feel things. So will people who are trying to cheer you up. Sometimes, we’re very deliberate about the impact we want to have. It bothers me a lot when people try to define feelings as wholly the responsibility of the person feeling them. It doesn’t always work that way. However, if we let people ‘make us’ feel things, or we don’t look closely enough at our responsibilities, that’s also an issue. People who are violent so often blame the person who ‘made them do it’ rather than recognising their own lack of self control.

I’ve been playing about with my own language use. It’s interesting to say ‘this is what I want to inspire in you’ rather than ‘make’. What I really want to do most of the time doesn’t involve making anyone do or feel anything. I want to enable and facilitate. I want to encourage and support. The language shift is helpful for directing my attention towards the kinds of spaces I hold for people and what that facilitates, and away from me taking inappropriate responsibility for how I ‘make people feel’. 

At the same time it’s opening up conversations about what other people around me might make, or not have to make. I don’t want anyone feeling like it’s their responsibility to make me happy. I want space where there is room for happiness, and where people can share joyful things and uplift each other. 

Words are powerful. Words are the basis of magic and spells. They are also how we hold the shapes of our thoughts and intentions. Sometimes a small language shift can open up large areas of possibility and exploration. 


Sitting with anger

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find better ways to make room for anger. It’s been an educational journey. I’ve learned to make deliberate space and to actively give myself permission for whatever feelings I’m having. There have been some significant times in my life when I simply wasn’t allowed inconvenient feelings, and I’m having to re-train.

Anger is a protective emotion. It’s a healthy response to violated boundaries and injustice. Without it, what happens for me is that any problem arising gets internalised. Instead of holding my boundaries, I’ll feel like I’m not entitled to them. Instead of challenging injustice, I’ll understand that the problem is all my fault. A person who is not allowed to be angry will have a very hard time functioning well.

One of the things coming up for me is a change in relation to my history. There are many things in my past that were grossly unfair, only I didn’t have the experience and knowledge to identify them at the time. To take a simple example – I grew up being routinely shamed for not being able to run, throw, catch, do gymnastics and being treated by teachers like I was lazy and it was my fault. I’m intensely hypermobile, these are all things my body just doesn’t do well. These are things that cause me pain, and that I was always at risk of taking damage from.

Of course when I was growing up, no one was much aware of this sort of thing. But, my world would have been so different if anyone had treated me kindly and even considered there might be stuff going on with my body. I couldn’t hold a pen properly, or a violin, my fingers were all wrong on pianos, but no one put it together, me included. 

There is something restorative about allowing myself to be angry now. There is something in my anger that soothes the child inside me, and gives me back some dignity. I was not lazy, I had body issues. I was not making a fuss – I was easily hurt. It wasn’t fair, and being able to say that as an adult comes as a relief. 

I’m going round similar things as I look back at my experience of being bullied as a child. I’m allowing myself to be cross now about things that were forced onto me, that didn’t suit me or made me unhappy.  I can’t change the past, but I can change my stories about the past. I went through a lot of things that really weren’t fair, and I can allow myself to be angry about that now. There’s no one to shut me down and tell me I cannot have my own feelings about such experiences. 

We may not be able to change a situation, but the person who is allowed to feel angry can hold onto the edges of themselves in better ways. Life is always going to knock us about. If we are allowed to resent the hard bits, to get cross about boundary violations and unfairness, we get to maintain a sense of personal integrity. Anger may not solve a problem or allow us to act differently – there may be no real options. But, the person who can get angry doesn’t internalise their experiences in the same way. If you know you were worth more and deserved better, you take less damage from problematic experiences.

And apparently, it’s never too late to start making that space.


Make good your escape

I’m very much a fan of escapism. Sometimes we all need to get out of our own heads for a while. A good distraction can give considerable respite from mental and physical health problems. When we’re burned out, emotionally exhausted by the state of the world, or struggling with despair, escapism can restore us, and can be really helpful.

I’m not here to judge where anyone else escapes to. If you find something soothing, restorative, uplifting or otherwise helpful, then do with it what you can.

However, it’s best to avoid the things that numb us out or kill time. It’s easy to fall into using distractions that don’t give much, and that don’t leave you feeling better afterwards. It’s especially easy to end up watching crap just because it’s there and isn’t what’s going on in your head. While there’s some gain sometimes in any kind of break from what’s going on in your head, it’s worth paying attention to what you are feeding yourself.

It’s a lot like junk food, and having the odd days where you comfort eat or comfort watch things you know aren’t so good for you, is no big deal. Sometimes you just have to get through as best you can. Living there takes a toll and will grind you down and undermine you, physically and emotionally. Brains need a good and nourishing diet, too.

I find it helps to have some ideas of where to escape to in place so that they can be easily deployed at need. That might mean having a few unread books stashed and ready to deploy. I’ve found National Geographic documentaries to be a good resource in an emergency, and there are many of those on their youtube channel. I’ve had some serious sessions with The Magnus Archive podcast, and I go to the Shrewsbury Folk festival youtube channel for folk fixes. There are other podcasts I’ve worked my way through at need. It’s as well to have something to deploy.

Killing time is an emotionally dangerous thing to do. It gives us nothing in exchange for the most precious thing we have. Escape can be a good and necessary thing, but it is so important to escape to somewhere that will do you some good. Don’t take your brain vacations inside a dumpster fire!


Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.


Different flavours of panic

Not all panics are the same. I’ve been exploring the different ways in which panic shows up for me and what the implications are for dealing with it. Panic can happen for all sorts of reasons, and my list won’t be exhaustive or true for everyone but I hope by sharing it I can give someone else a place to start.

Hormone panics. I’m somewhere in the menopause sea (I have no idea where). I get intense hormone blasts sometimes, and they tend to make me panic. Recognising them as hormone-induced helps me weather them. Otherwise, soothing drinks are about the only thing I’ve found useful.

Overload panics. These happen when I’m exhausted, mentally or physically. Just hitting exhaustion can be enough to do it. If some extra thing needs doing when I’ve already hit my limits, this will also really panic me and make me largely useless. My best coping methods are to be clear with the people around me when I’m approaching the edges, and to be clear that I’m having overload panic if it kicks off. I have to accept that I can’t push through these to do the things, I have to wait until I’m better resourced and calmer.

Panic caused by triggers. These are often much harder to explain to anyone else while they’re happening because they bring up intense intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. The first priority is to get away from whatever seems unsafe. I’m working on being clearer with anyone who might come into contact with these that I need them to help me feel safe and to be quick to react if they’ve accidentally triggered me. Feeling safer will bring the panic down, and without that I’m stuck and can spiral through panic, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks for hours.

Triggered panics fall into two broad categories. One is where I feel to blame over things that aren’t my fault, or responsible for everything. The less power I have to sort things out, the more triggering this is. The second area is around loss of body autonomy. The conventional wisdom around this sort of panic is that it is down to the person experiencing it to work on recovering. On the whole I think I’d do a lot better without being triggered in the first place, so, I’m talking more about my boundaries, what its fair for me to take on, and what I need to have change. I’ve dealt with people in the past who triggered me and were very clear it wasn’t their job to do better. I’ve come to the conclusion that if anything of that shape happens again, I will remove those people from my life with all speed.

Part of what got me damaged in the first place was people ignoring boundaries and forcing unreasonable responsibilities on to me. This in turn makes it hard to flag up distress in those areas, making it harder for anyone who wants to not get into that kind of mess with me. With a back history full of being trained that people who hurt me were entitled to do that, I’m re-drawing my lines. People who want my time, care, energy and resources are going to have to treat me in ways that make that possible. Anyone who tells me they can’t be walking on eggshells all the time, or anything similar, will be out of the mix. I can’t afford it, and I recognise, finally, that no one is entitled to treat me as disposable in that way. Feeling worthless is part of what underpins the panic, but I do not have to accept being treated as worthless and I can say no.


Managing the energy

For some months now, I’ve really been struggling with energy levels. It’s affected what work I can do, and how far I can walk. It’s also been depressing and worrying. I’ve been making a lot of changes in order to try and handle things better and in the hopes of being able to recover from this to some degree.

I notice that I tend to think of poor energy as a head issue. It’s one I’ve previously dealt with by applying willpower and pushing through. Like a lot of people dealing with fatigue, I have a history of not being taken very seriously and being encouraged to think of it as a personal failing, not a body issue. I find that when I treat low energy as something that is happening to my body – not as a failure to make enough effort – I can improve things. Mostly it’s about food and rest.

Increasing my food intake often helps. Even if it doesn’t solve the energy problem, it tends to ease the panic and depression that go with having run out of energy. Toast is my friend. Fruit is also good. Plant-milks are easy to digest and sometimes biscuits are the answer. I have to remind myself that comfort eating doesn’t make me a terrible person, and that I am allowed to do things that help me feel less horrible.

Rest makes a lot of odds, and as I’ve explored in previous posts (Doing Nothing) sometimes flopping in a heap is about the only option I have. I’ve established that how and when I rest makes a lot of odds. It is currently fair for me to assume that I’ll get three or four hours in a day with good concentration and scope to be active, and that I might get a few hours beyond that where I can do some things in a more limited way – reading or crafting perhaps. I can no longer just work flat out in the way I used to. To have four hours or so of good brain, I have to take breaks. Slow the pace and more becomes possible. I still have to be careful not to wipe myself out, but pacing is clearly key.

I have to prioritise. I have to say no to things. I have to make the time to stop and recover.  It’s a lot to learn and is requiring me to identify and rethink a lot of beliefs I have about myself. I need to feel that I am allowed to rest, and I need to deal with the voices I have internalised that tell me otherwise. If I keep on as I was, I will likely get worse. If I can change things, there’s some hope of turning this around.


Why soothing is a problem

“There, there dear, don’t cry.” It’s the most awful thing to hear when you are crying. There’s no comfort in it, it’s just a very polite way for someone to tell you to shut up while feeling that they’re being nice.

If a person is crying, there’s probably a reason, and that reason isn’t solved by telling them not to cry. Most allegedly soothing and comforting interventions work in much the same way. Cheer up. It will be ok. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are. Don’t worry about it. It isn’t important. There’s no need to be this upset… All of these kinds of comments are a message to the person who is hurt to make the people around them more comfortable by shutting down their distress.

Make soothing noises, and you make it harder for a person to talk about what’s hurting them. Tell someone things are ok when they aren’t experiencing it that way, and you’ve just written over their experience, erased it, told them that their perceptions aren’t important.

We don’t all experience things the same way. We have different vulnerabilities, different histories. Things can be painful and loaded for a person with a history in a way that might never occur to someone else. If something doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you, that’s no measure of how it might make someone else feel. Imposing your response as the truth isn’t going to make them feel better, it’s going to make them feel like they don’t matter.

If you want to help someone who is suffering, start by taking them seriously. Validate their feelings – even if you think they are wrong, accept that this is how they feel. Start from where they are, not where you want them to be. If you want to help, find out what’s happening for them, and take it seriously. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way, or that it is unreasonable. Deal with the distress first and then maybe there will be space in which you can explore the thinking and experiences that led there.

If someone stops crying because you told them to, you probably haven’t comforted them at all. There’s a very real chance you’ve just persuaded them that you don’t really care how they feel. They may feel dismissed and like their feelings and distress don’t matter. They may have just had a clear message that making you comfortable by shutting up is the most important thing. Sitting with someone else’s pain is a hard thing to do, and soothing noises are easy to make and really affirming for the person doing that. You make the soothing noises, the sad person gets quieter, job done! Only the odds are you’ve added to their load, not lightened it.

Pain takes work. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable. If you aren’t willing or able to be uncomfortable in order to help alleviate someone else’s distress, it is important to know that and handle it honestly. It is better to say that you can’t help, than it is to shut the other person down.


When not to be positive

It is true that a positive attitude and a willingness to make the best of things can help a person in many situations. However, it isn’t always the right choice. Too much forced positivity distorts experience and cuts us off from our authentic emotions. We need to feel those ‘negative’ things as well, and they serve us in many ways.

Anger is protective. Good anger helps us hold boundaries and recognise when things are not as they should be. Anger is not necessarily violent or aggressive. Making room for it enables a person to take better care of themselves and everything and everyone they care for.

Grief and pain are the inevitable consequences of love. There is no love without loss, and there is no grief without care. You can’t have one side of this equation and not the other. Un-dealt-with grief just builds up in a person and will rob you of energy, or burst out in some sudden and uncontrolled way.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and bitterness don’t go away just because you focus your attention on something more positive. In my experience, the worst people for passive aggression and backstabbing are those who profess to be invested in love and light. If you don’t let yourself look at your less appealing characteristics, you won’t notice when you’re expressing them. If you don’t process these feelings and find ways to deal with them, the result is usually vicious.

There’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ emotion. All feelings are valid. What we choose to do in response to them bears thought and scrutiny. The first emotional response we have is not necessarily the most authentic – it could be what we’ve been taught, or it could come from out of date coping mechanisms, for example. It’s better to make room for those feelings and find out what they are and where they come from.

It’s easier to be a more positive person if you don’t expend a lot of energy tying yourself in knots to try and deny the bits of you that aren’t upbeat and relentlessly cheerful. It’s easier to be positive if you have made space to deal with your baggage. It is easier to be kind and cooperative if you know how to make the space for grumpy, frustrated and unhappy feelings when they come along.